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A qualitative study investigating food choices and perceived psychosocial influences on eating behaviours in secondary school students

Sian Calvert (Department of Psychology, Staffordshire University, Stoke-on-Trent, UK)
Robert C. Dempsey (Department of Psychology, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, UK)
Rachel Povey (Department of Psychology, Staffordshire University, Stoke-on-Trent, UK)

British Food Journal

ISSN: 0007-070X

Article publication date: 17 March 2020




Childhood obesity is a major global health concern. Understanding children's and adolescent’s eating behaviours and promoting healthier behaviours is key for reducing the negative health outcomes associated with obesity. The current study explored the perceptions of healthy eating behaviours and the influences on eating behaviours amongst 11-to-13-year-old secondary school students.


Nine semi-structured same-sex focus group discussions were conducted in schools located in deprived areas of England, with the discussions subjected to a thematic framework analysis.


Three main constructs were identified in the analysis as follows: (1) eating patterns and lifestyle, (2) social influences and (3) environmental influences. Participants understood what healthy eating behaviours are and the benefits of eating healthy; yet, they reported irregular mealtimes and consuming unhealthy snacks. Students reported that their parents and fellow student peers were strong influences on their own eating behaviours, with girls subjected to being teased by male students for attempting to eat healthily. Finally, students perceived that unhealthy foods were cheaper, tasted better and were readily available in their social environments compared to healthier options, making healthier behaviours less likely to occur.


Findings indicate that students had a good understanding of healthy eating behaviours but did not always practise them and are seemingly influenced by their social and environmental context. The promotion of healthier eating in this age group needs to challenge the misperceptions associated with the accessibility and social acceptability of unhealthy food items.



The authors would like to acknowledge [Sonia Begum] (independent researcher) for her help with reviewing the initial thematic framework.The study was supported by a studentship awarded to Sian Calvert at Staffordshire University.


Calvert, S., Dempsey, R.C. and Povey, R. (2020), "A qualitative study investigating food choices and perceived psychosocial influences on eating behaviours in secondary school students", British Food Journal, Vol. 122 No. 4, pp. 1027-1039.



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